The Nigerian filmmaker reshaping Nollywood in her own image

Jade Osiberu speaks about risks, artistic excellence and a new Nollywood.

Movie audiences sit in their parked cars as they watch a movie at a drive-in cinema amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Abuja
People watch a movie from their parked cars at a drive-in cinema during the COVID-19 pandemic in Abuja, Nigeria, on May 20, 2020 [File: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters]
People watch a movie from their parked cars at a drive-in cinema during the COVID-19 pandemic in Abuja, Nigeria, on May 20, 2020 [File: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters]

When Amazon Prime Video was looking to enter the Nollywood film industry, once billed as the second largest in the world, the American streaming platform went to Jade Osiberu, a successful writer, producer and director.

An early result of this collaboration is Gangs of Lagos, a violent gangster drama that is billed as Prime Video’s first original on the continent.

Gangs of Lagos debuted in April to wide acclaim and entered the top three on Amazon Prime Video’s global chart. It is the story of Lagos writ large, albeit one that zeroes in on Isale Eko, an influential neighborhood in the old city district.

Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial and entertainment capital, is often glamorised as a city of energy and entrepreneurial hustle. But that narrative often sidelines the city's poverty and organised criminal activity routinely weaponised by local politicians to serve selfish interests.

Gangs of Lagos, which, Osiberu told Al Jazeera, was inspired by the gangster classics of American directors Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, does this but also celebrates the culture, heritage and resilience of the people who inhabit this world.

“I always knew I wanted to tell a story about a child growing up in this world who is not able to get out,” Osiberu, 38, said.

Nigerian filmmaker Jáde Osiberu
Nigerian filmmaker Jade Osiberu [Courtesy of Greoh Studios]

To create a hyperrealistic version of Isale Eko, she worked with screenwriter Kayode Jegede, an Isale Eko native who brought authenticity and colour to the fictional version.

Not everyone was pleased by this representation, though.

In an early scene in Gangs, a character disguised as an Eyo masquerade - an important cultural tradition believed by the Yorubas to represent the spirit of the dead - commits murder in broad daylight. A voice-over narrator then describes the Eyo as “the first gang in Lagos”.

Some indigenes and descendants of Isale Eko have accused Osiberu and her film of disparaging their culture.

Even the Lagos state government stepped into the controversy. Its Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture decried the film as depicting a gang of rampaging murderers in the state. “It is an unjust profiling of a people and culture as being barbaric and nefarious,” its said in a statement.

Impacting culture

Actors on the set of Amazon Prime thriller Gangs of Lagos
Actors on the set of the Amazon Prime thriller Gangs of Lagos [Courtesy of Greoh Studios]
Actors on the set of the Amazon Prime thriller Gangs of Lagos [Courtesy of Greoh Studios]

It wasn’t the first time Osiberu found herself afoul of government officials. The theatre run of the 2019 comedy Sugar Rush, which she co-wrote and produced, was suspended while it was the number one film at the box office.

The country’s anti-corruption watchdog seemed to have taken offence at the film’s portrayal of its fictional officers as bumbling, corrupt tools. The National Film and Video Censors Board denied this, saying the suspension was a simple case of the film’s temporary approval expiring.

Nigeria has a problematic history of stifling creative freedoms. Films dealing with turbulent historical events, such as the civil war (Half of a Yellow Sun) and the Boko Haram conflict (The Milkmaid), were heavily censored before theatrical screening licenses were approved. In 2021, President Muhammadu Buhari banned Twitter for seven months after the platform took down one of his tweets for violating its policy on abusive behaviour.

After the release of Gangs of Lagos, the censors board's boss expressed regret that his agency lacked the authority to regulate the content on streaming platforms. A bill seeking to empower the board to do that is being reviewed by parliament.

Osiberu is a filmmaker interested in making crowd-pleasing fare which have become a routine target of government ire. She is unwilling to comment publicly on the controversies surrounding her films, and she is undeterred. She has wrapped production on the forthcoming feature Everything Scatter, which delves into police brutality, a chronic menace that spurred massive protests in Nigeria in October 2020.

Osiberu believes commercial hits are key to a sustainable industry. Her films also carry a personal style - bright, poppy colours and social commentary that distinguishes her work from her peers.

“I respect artistic films," she said. "I think they put us in the right direction for where we should go. But I think we need to appeal to a broader audience but also not in a way that excludes art, that is also boring, and I don’t want to do that.”

“To impact the culture, you have to tell these big stories that a lot of people can connect to while you infuse the things you want to talk about,” she added. “That way you can expand peoples’ thoughts about their society.”

'A front-row seat to ... greatness'

Jade Osiberu (right) discusses with a crew member on set of Gangs of Lagos
Jade Osiberu, right, discusses the production with a crew member on the set of Gangs of Lagos [Courtesy of Jade Osiberu/Greoh Studios]
Jade Osiberu, right, discusses the production with a crew member on the set of Gangs of Lagos [Courtesy of Jade Osiberu/Greoh Studios]

Osiberu was born the daughter of a royal from Sagamu in Ogun state and to engineer parents. It was decided she would study engineering herself at the University of Manchester despite her demonstrated love for the arts early on.

Upon her return to Nigeria, Osiberu drifted for a while before joining a digital marketing team at a top Nigerian bank. After participating in strategy review sessions where she interacted with top management, Osiberu came away with a deeper understanding of the bank’s brand. She then pitched and was assigned to run Ndani TV, a pioneering online video content marketing platform that had her developing hours of original web content. This would ultimately kick-start her filmmaking journey.

Gidi Up, a web series that she wrote, produced and directed became a cult hit, popular among upwardly mobile millennials. Ndani TV would go on to spawn countless imitations with Osiberu more or less birthing an entire industry of web content in the banking industry. Osiberu said she is proud of her work at Ndani but considers its influence on cultural programming incidental. Her motive, she told Al Jazeera, has always been telling the stories that matter to her.

After leaving the banking industry, she produced her first feature, the romantic comedy Isoken, based on her experience as an unmarried 30-something woman in Lagos. By this time, she had begun to impress colleagues and audiences alike with her drive, ambition and developing visual style.

Lala Akindoju, a film executive who attended graduate school at Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos with Osiberu, collaborated with her on Gidi Up and Gangs of Lagos. Akindoju said she was struck by the depth of Osiberu’s obsession with telling stories but has also enjoyed her loyalty.

“Jade did not have to make Gangs with me. I had just had my baby when she was ready to move, but she believes strongly in going forward together.”

“I tell Jade all the time that she is a creative genius and I consider myself privileged to have a front-row seat to her talent and greatness,” Akindoju added. “When she is creating, she tends to have a vision already that I align with, but she is also very open to feedback.”

On the set of Gangs of Lagos
On the set of Gangs of Lagos [Courtesy of Greoh Studios]

Always looking to upskill, Osiberu finds time to collaborate when not developing her own projects.

Not all of these attempts have gone smoothly.

Loukman Ali, the Ugandan director whom Osiberu hired to direct last year’s police-and-thief box office megahit Brotherhood, announced his unceremonious exit from the project during post-production, citing creative differences.

For the much-delayed 2023 crime drama The Trade, which Osiberu was contracted to work on as writer and director, she was conspicuously absent from the promotional cycle and has distanced herself from the project.

But for Adesegun Adetoro, a producer who has worked with Osiberu on two films, the experience has always been positive. “It can be intense for any one person to juggle both producing and directing but [on Gangs of Lagos] especially, I was awed by her ability to move smoothly and competently between both callings," Adetoro said. "You could tell she had gained the experience. I respect her as a filmmaker. She thinks through stuff, has a collaborative spirit and understands the business.”

Osiberu has committed to a three-year deal with Amazon, the first of its kind for the studio with any creative talent on the continent. No matter how lucrative, the deal was not quite a no-brainer for Osiberu. While on paper it seemed amazing, she expressed reservations about losing her creative freedom after having been in charge of her own narrative for a long time.

“The deal was something I did not expect. I didn’t even know to ask for it, so when it was brought up after Gangs, I was concerned,” she recalled.

She was soon persuaded by the opportunity of scaling up her game and working with creatives and craftspeople from all over the world to make even more ambitious African films for an international audience.

“The pitch to me was that they [Amazon] want to make whatever I am passionate about, films that I want to make, the most audacious sort of projects," she said. "Hopefully, I can grow as an artist, and they can grow as a platform.”

Source: Al Jazeera